Riverkeepers present State of the Choptank River for 2016

CAMBRIDGE — On May 26, at a public meeting at the Cambridge Yacht Club, the Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy (MRC) announced its 2016 Report Card on the water quality of the Choptank River. Choptank Riverkeeper Matt Pluta summed it up: “We’ve seen some improvements, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

He and other speakers from the Cambridge Clean Water Advisory Committee (CCWAC) went on to discuss a variety of local projects, intended to educate and to enlist the involvement of the local community in improving the Choptank. The 71-mile river actually begins at Choptank Mills, Del., passes through Cambridge, and flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

The data used to prepare the 2016 Annual Report Card comes from the Riverkeepers and a small army of volunteers, who sample water from over 50 sites on a monthly basis. The water is tested for the level of nutrients (primarily nitrogen and phosphorus), as well as water clarity, salinity, oxygen levels, and temperature. These volunteer citizen scientists also serve as “an extra set of eyes and ears in and on the water, in identifying potential sources of pollution” according to Mr. Pluta, who is a Cambridge resident.

MRC’s Watershed Scientist Tim Rosen explained how the amount of rainfall over a year can have a significant impact on the flow of pollutants into the river water. Sources of pollution come from the land, such as agriculture, old and failed septic systems, and wastewater treatment plants. Rain washes nutrients from the land into the river and its tributaries, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. The results are algae blooms, low oxygen, dead zones, and fewer crabs and oysters. In drier years, the water quality improves and life in the water rebounds. However, “if we start reducing the source, we’ll still have good water quality, regardless of how much it rains,” said Mr. Rosen.

With this as background Pluta then delivered the Report Card grades. The Choptank River Watershed is divided into three sections: Lower Choptank, Upper Choptank, and Tuckahoe Creek, a major tributary of the river. This year the grade for the Upper Choptank (UC) went down, from C+ to C, due to higher nutrient levels and lower clarity. The UC has the largest land area around it, thus it is most affected by what people do on the land. Tuckahoe Creek continues to have the lowest water quality in the Choptank watershed, its grade dropping from C to C-.

But the Lower Choptank (LC) improved, from B to B+, with all three tributaries improving individually (Harris Creek, Broad Creek, and Tred Avon). Because the LC is closest to the Bay, it is also influenced by Bay water quality. Mr. Pluta cautioned, however, “An improvement does not mean we have great water quality,” since last year was a drier year than before.

Everyone needs to do their part. For example, the winter cover crops planted by farmers who participate in a state-run program help by stabilizing sediment and taking up excess nutrients from the soil. How can local citizens help? Following is a list of local projects offered by MRC and its partners.

MRC received grant funding for a watershed assessment of Cambridge Creek, and is working with its Cambridge partners to identify pollution hot spots and then develop strategies as a community.

Marylanders Grow Oysters offers waterside homeowners an opportunity to grow oysters off their land or docks. One oyster can clean over 50 gallons of water a day. One dock cage holds around 250 oysters. Currently there are about 1000 cages on local rivers, with 300-400 growers participating.

The Underwater Grass Monitoring project enlists people out in small boats to help map and monitor the identification, location, and size of existing underwater grasses.

Students for Streams has the ambitious goal of providing every Dorchester County student in one grade (9th grade this year) with 1 year of environmental education. The public is invited to join MRC at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School for a ribbon cutting on June 2 at 10 a.m. on a new No-Mow Meadow designed by the students.

Stewards for Streams connects faith-based communities of any denomination with environmental stewardship projects. An example is the Rain Garden installed at Waugh Chapel on High Street in Cambridge. MRC also works with Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, all over Delmarva. The public was invited on May 30 to St. Luke’s “to plant 400 native species in a bio-swale that will reduce runoff, provide habitat, and filter water,” according to Suzanne Sullivan, education and volunteer coordinator for MRC.

The Cambridge Clean Water Advisory Committee was endorsed two years ago by the Mayor of Cambridge. The Committee includes the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance (NWA), Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), Dorchester Citizens for Planned Growth (DCPG), Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), and the University of Maryland (UMD) Sea Grant Extension, all on hand at this meeting to offer more opportunities for local citizens to make a difference.

Lisa Wool, new edxecutive director of NWA, listed a 10-year action plan, in line with ongoing projects from other partners. Goals include: convert impervious paving to green space; plant urban canopy trees; redirect downspouts and plant rain gardens; reduce fertilizer use; educate the public about yard management (leave grass clippings on lawns, convert dead leaves and yard waste to compost and mulch, keeping them out of landfills); work with cities, counties, and the State Highway Administration to plant source pollution reduction vegetation along roadsides and medians; partner with public and private development projects to install pervious paving (such as that recently installed at Long Wharf); create curb bumpouts (such as those installed on Maryland Avenue), that “reduce runoff, provide habitat, increase property values, and calm traffic,” according to Wool.

Hilary Gibson, Eastern Shore Grassroots field specialist from CBF, is currently working with five Cambridge homeowners on source pollution reducing landscape designs, made possible through the University of Maryland Sea Grant Extension.

Rachel Roman from ESLC discussed their partnership in the Phillips Packing House restoration project, advising on green development practices.

Fred Pomeroy, president of DCPG, highlighted their Demonstration Stormwater Runoff Prevention Project now on view for public education at Sailwinds Park.

Finally, Jen Dindinger, from UMD Extension, outlined relevant programs available out of her Cambridge office, such as agricultural nutrient management, watershed restoration, living shorelines, and septic system care.

For more information on these initiatives and how you can get involved, contact Matt Pluta, MRC, matt@midshoreriverkeeper.org, 443-385-0511, or visit their website at: http://www.midshoreriverkeeper.org.

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